Apologist Joel Furches explores one of the primary objections offered by Americans who exit the Christian faith
In 2008, Bible scholars Norm Geisler and Thomas Howe published their Big Book of Bible Difficulties, which claims to cover “over 800 questions that critics and doubters raise about the Bible”. While the 800 difficulties addressed include everything from unclear passages, apparent historical inconsistencies, scientific questions and morally puzzling material, a sizable portion are also related to contradictions – that is to say, parts of the Bible which say things that seem incompatible with other parts of the Bible.
Both Answering Christianity and OFC Berkeley count 101 contradictions in the Bible, ranging from an apparent two different creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis, to who it was that inspired David to take a census (Satan or God?), to how many angels are seen at Jesus’ tomb, and a great deal in between.
What is one to make, then, of all these apparent contradictions that occur in the biblical texts?
What is a contradiction?
For the purposes of this article, a contradiction would be two statements made in the Bible which, taken at face value, could not both be true in the same way at the same time. For instance, in his list of ‘Top 20 Most Damning Bible Contradictions’, Patheos blogger Bob Seidensticker mentions that, whereas the books of Luke and Matthew have the women who witness the empty tomb run and tell the disciples, in Mark it says that the women “fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” (Mark 16:8, ESV).
If it is true that the Bible makes it explicit that the women ran to the disciples with news of the empty tomb in one passage, but ran away and spoke to no one about the empty tomb in another passage, this would qualify as a contradiction, because both cannot be true at the same time and in the same way.
Get access to exclusive bonus content & updates: register & sign up to the Premier Unbelievable? newsletter!
Three approaches to reading contradictions:
Bible scholar Dr Lydia McGrew studies and writes about the Gospels. In addressing troubling passages and contradictions, McGrew’s response is to point out all of the areas in which the Gospels agree, support one another, are historically accurate and otherwise prove themselves reliable. McGrew suggests that when sources are generally shown to be reliable, one allows them the benefit of the doubt when apparent contradictions arise, and assumes that the error is probably on one’s understanding of the passage rather than the passage itself.
Imagine, if you will, hearing a trusted friend tell you that she saw Susan in the park and she was wearing a red dress. The same day, a different but equally trusted friend tells you that she saw Susan in the mall and she was wearing a green dress. In all likelihood, you would not accuse either of the friends of lying. It is at least possible that Susan could have been in two different locations wearing two different outfits in the same day – or wearing a dress with two prominent colours which might stand out differently to two different observers. While one could cast doubt on the stories by trying to calculate the likelihood that Susan would have been rushing about changing outfits all day, there is a principle of charity which one applies to accounts from reasonable sources that says there may be a way to reconcile two things with a superficial contradiction.
Most people who are not inclined to be sceptical of scripture barely blink when Genesis 1 says that God created in six days and Genesis 2 says: “In the day God created the heavens and the Earth.” To those inclined to scepticism, the contradiction seems obvious. The charitable reader will immediately take the second to be a summation or expression referring to the first.
And if the women run in fear from the garden saying “nothing to anyone,” and then later find the disciples and tell them, one can charitably find a way to reconcile the idea that the women said nothing as they were running from the garden but spoke to the disciples later when they found them. Perhaps, for instance, the author is simply trying to say something similar to our English expression “scared speechless”.
In most instances, the alleged contradiction does not strain beyond the flexibility of the principle of charity. The task, then, is to find an explanation which allows the two passages to both be true in their own way rather than contradicting one another. This approach has classically been called ‘harmonisation’ and has been the preferred method for Bible-believers for most of history.
Dr Michael Licona, as a reputable New Testament scholar, tends to find himself at odds with Lydia McGrew on the approach to Bible contradictions. While the two agree that the New Testament is generally historically reliable, Licona says that one must be aware of genre and message when reading these passages. The Bible is a book of books, filled with scores of texts written, edited and compiled over centuries or even millennia by dozens of different authors from different times, locations and cultural backgrounds, writing and translating between different languages, and bringing their own interests and approaches to the texts. The Gospels are probably the perfect example of this, as they had at least four different authors drawing from oral, written and eyewitness accounts of the events and writing to different audiences.
Matthew’s audience, for instance, were definitely cultural and religious Jews who had their doubts about Jesus. While writing the same accounts as Luke and Mark, Matthew focuses on features of the stories tailored to his Jewish audience with an eye to connect as many features as possible to Old Testament prophecies and sayings. Matthew’s account, being a targeted message written in a particular style (a 1st Century biography, says Licona) is not necessarily going to tell the stories in the same way as do the other three. For instance, while other authors quote Jesus as saying “forgive us our trespasses’’ within the Lord’s prayer, Matthew says “forgive us our debts”. The same meaning is conveyed, but Matthew, being a tax collector, tends to view things in terms of coin-value.
John, on the other hand, is writing to an audience two or three generations removed from the events he is recounting, and influenced by the Hellenistic culture of the time, so his storytelling will be different than Matthew. These are not, says Licona, written as 21st Century history textbooks, they are sermons and stories told to make a point, and so they are going to be told differently for that reason.
While the accounts may not be accurate in all of their details (such as a word-for-word narration of Jesus’ sermons – more likely a paraphrasing or summary), inaccuracies are going to be slight and for the purpose of making a point. The original audience (1st Century Jews and 1st or 2nd Century Greeks respectively) will not expect to be receiving a play-by-play account of the exact words and deeds in the order they were said or done, because this is not how histories were written in the 1st Century. And so small contradictions such as the number of angels at the tomb are not going to bother the audience, and shouldn’t bother the modern reader.
These same concerns: genre of writing and points being communicated, would apply globally to the entire Bible according to Licona and his peers.
Jim Warner Wallace
J Warner Wallace is not a Bible scholar by training – although he has taken seminary courses along the way. Instead, he is a homicide detective. And not just any homicide detective: a cold case detective. Wallace spent his career pouring over transcripts of old court cases and eyewitness interviews, interrogating suspects years after the events, and generally hearing accounts of crimes second or third hand from both the suspicious and sincere.
Wallace was a sceptic and unbeliever when he first read the Gospels, so was not the kind of person one would expect to read contradictions charitably. Surprisingly, Wallace found the Gospels to bear all of the hallmarks of the eyewitness testimonies he had spent his life reading. In fact, they read so similar to eyewitness accounts, he began to believe that they were true, and became a believer.
But what did a trained detective and sceptic like Wallace do about the contradictions he saw? Believe it or not, the contradictions made the accounts seem all the more credible to Wallace. Eyewitnesses don’t always notice the same things, remember the events in an identical way, and sometimes they contradict one another. In fact, Wallace was more inclined to be suspicious if the eyewitnesses did not tell their stories without any contradictions. Why? Because if the eyewitnesses all told the same story with the same details and no disagreements, it’s likely that they intentionally coordinated their tales, and their recounting was not sincerely from their own recollection, but was influenced by others who remember differently. Or worse, it was a collaboration to make up a story.
Perfectly coordinated accounts sound more like fiction to Wallace than do accounts which remember a different number of angels at the tomb, or remember Jesus saying different final words on the cross. This is the way in which people recall things they witnessed, and made Wallace more comfortable with the accounts in the long run.
It is worth noting that both Wallace and McGrew are convinced of the accuracy of the Gospel accounts because of an entirely separate phenomenon: small details in each Gospel which clarify small details in another. For instance, one Gospel has Jesus first invite a group of fishermen to join his ministry while they are making repairs to their fishing nets. Another Gospel mentions that immediately prior to him calling them, they had made a large catch of fish which had torn their nets, but omits the detail of them making repairs.
One Gospel says that, as Jesus fed the 5,000, they were seated on green grass – an extreme rarity in the arid region in which the event happened. Another Gospel does not mention the fresh grass, but does say that the event happened in the springtime, which is the only season in which the grass is green in this geographic region.
These numerous small details are scattered across all four Gospels and are exactly, Wallace says, what one sees in eyewitness accounts. Other authors have gone so far as to look at Old Testament texts wherein two books record the same accounts (Kings, Chronicles and the prophetic books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, for instance), and list undesigned coincidences in these more ancient texts, as well.
What does a contradiction imply?
If you are reading this article and you are a Christian in America, you have very likely been told that the Bible is inerrant and inspired by God. Under this assumption, visible contradictions may cut against the idea that an all-wise God would write a book that perfectly communicated his truth. This has set Christians in America up for an inescapable dilemma: either the Bible is without error or flaw, or it is entirely untrue. With this approach in mind, it is no surprise that the primary objection offered by Americans who exit the Christian faith is contradictions they have found in the Bible.
To escape this dilemma, sometimes Christians retreat to an alternative dilemma; one that says, “either the Bible is entirely literal, or it is entirely metaphorical”. When contradictions arise, Christians often seek the shelter of metaphor in order to escape the spectre of error. This extreme is problematic insofar as it allows the individual to read whatever they like into the text, and makes it difficult to slice through the vagary to identify what the text is actually trying to communicate.
Metaphors begin to look flimsy and strained as time progresses, and the idea that the Bible is metaphorical rather than literal begins to seem like an excuse. In point of fact, there is a spectrum that exists between the absolutely literal and the vaguely metaphorical. It is possible for some scripture to exist within that spectrum rather than to sit at the extremes.
What to do with contradictions
First and foremost, it must be stated that one does not have to maintain a high level of certainty regarding the nature of scripture. This is a trap into which Christians frequently fall. If one does not have the answer to a Bible difficulty, or is uncertain how to approach it, this does not mean that no such answer exists. This is equally a trap into which sceptics fall.
Consider the example of the women running from the empty tomb and either immediately reporting it to the disciples or “saying nothing to anyone”. It would be equally erroneous to take it on certainty that this is a contradiction and means the story is untrue as it would to say with certainty that the accounts are entirely consistent. Either of these may be considered as possible conclusions, but none of them demand certainty.
Humans have holes in their knowledge, and to demand of oneself total understanding and confidence of all the answers is to set oneself up for failure. Perhaps it is best to return to the example of the three scholars mentioned above and how they handle gaps in their understanding of the text.
All three of the scholars surveyed have a very specific philosophy on the ultimate value of the Bible: the internal and external evidence of the Bible makes an extremely strong case that Jesus was a real historical person who was crucified and rose from the grave. On the evidence alone, this is a fact which can be established with a high degree of confidence. On the basis of this fact, it is certain that Christianity is true. Even allowing for doubts and questions about the rest of scripture, the death and resurrection of Jesus gives Christians all they need to have confidence in the core message of scripture. Licona especially makes this case: that doubts may be comfortably entertained about biblical problems because Christians can still be certain of the hope in Christ provided by his work on the cross.
In surveying various contradictions, Wallace points out that even given these contradictions, the principle message conveyed by these passages remains solid. David took a census and it was considered a bad thing to do, whether Satan or God inspired him to do so. The women witnessed an empty tomb whether they spoke of it immediately or not. And Christians pray for God to forgive them, regardless of whether his exact words were “forgive our debts” or “forgive our trespasses”.
Finally, McGrew takes the tried-and-true approach Christians have used for ages: harmonisation. This is the method Geisler and Howe take in their Big Book of Bible Difficulties. Give the text the benefit of the doubt and find ways that the contradicting accounts may be reconciled. If reasonable reconciliation may be found, one need not say that such passages are hopeless errors.
It would be foolish to say that there are no statements in the Bible which, on the surface, seem to be saying things that conflict. These are frequently exploited by individuals who have reason to cast aspersion on the Christian faith. However, with nearly 2,000 years of scrutinization, every alleged contradiction has been given a harmonisation of some kind. Given that the texts have proven themselves reliable when tested by archeology, correlation with contemporary texts and internal consistency in the details, it is not beyond reason to think that harmonisation has some legitimacy.
Despite the disagreement between McGrew’s harmonisation approach and Licona’s literary genre approach, it is true that modern Western readers have very different standards of accuracy in communication, not to mention idiom, literary forms and cultural norms than the Jews who wrote the majority of the texts in the Ancient Near Middle East. Prophetic language, poetic language, apocalyptic language and ancient biography forms are evident in the texts, and a better understanding of the history and culture from which the text emerged does lend to insights otherwise difficult to come by. Whether or not one is willing to fully commit to Licona’s ideas that differences in the texts reflect differences in writing styles and the intentions of the writer, knowing how people thought and spoke in those eras lends a great deal of clarity to the scripture.
Finally, the strict, wooden approach to a literal understanding of the text gives a great deal of potency to the doubts which spring forth from apparent contradictions. Nevertheless, as Wallace points out, there are clear artefacts of eyewitness accounts throughout the Bible which allow a degree of confidence that the underlying message is solid, even in the event that some of the details have been lost or confused.
In any other ancient text, contradictory passages cause little worry for historians and scholars. It is only the high degree of importance placed upon the Bible which make such passages a source of anxiety. If anything, possible contradictions are first and foremost a pathway to learning and growth, a course which is reasonable to pursue before one gives in to doubt and despair.
Joel Furches is an apologist, journalist and researcher on conversion and deconversion, based in the USA.